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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Unbearable Weight of Being a Historian

[This is a rough attempt to sketch out an argument about the ethics of history.  It takes its starting point from the work of Albert Camus and then Simon Critchley to argue that there is an ethical demand in the moment where we decide to study the past - where, in other words, we allow the people of the past to speak to us - which is universal in its implications.  Here I am just talking about history in a very limited sense.  I hope to develop the ethical, political and historical implications of these thoughts further at a later date.]

Let me try out a preliminary sketch of a first draft of a vague idea of something that might eventually take concrete form.  As you know, I’m not a philosopher but I do find philosophy very interesting, particularly in its ‘Continental’ form.  Indeed, most of the time I find it considerably more interesting than history, at least as usually practised (by me at any rate)...  I consider ‘continental’ philosophy to be a natural ally of historical enquiry, especially in a politically engaged way. This makes me sad that so many historians, medieval historians particularly, are so frightened of (especially post-structuralist) continental philosophy that they will adopt just about any alternative, any number of self-contradictions, in order to avoid giving either of the dreaded Jacques (Derrida and Lacan) any air time.  It makes me sad that they seem to think that they are more in harmony with the ‘analytic’ tradition in philosophy, which really has very little to say to history at a fundamental level.  Unless, that is, you think that history is first and foremost about deciding what is or is not ‘meaningful’ or logically ‘true’, or engaging in what are, at base, little more than highly intellectual, abstruse parlour games, such as whether it is logically possible to have two omnipotent beings.  Actually, on reflection, maybe it is the natural ally of most historical practice…
Or not…
Albert Camus: pioneer of the
open-plan office
As is my pretentious wont, I am re-reading Camus’ L’Homme Révolté.  Currently I’d have it as my ‘Desert Island Discs’ book, instead of The Bible (as an aside, Muslims get the Qur’an on Desert Island Discs, so why do atheists still get lumbered with The Bible?); it will certainly be the core text (in the abridged English version) when I start teaching my course on ‘Terror’ on my return from the joys of research leave.  Anyhow, the point I am waffling my way towards concerns the recognition of a universal in the specific case.  Camus’ argument is that revolt, even when provoked by a very specific, personalised affront (the slave whipped once too often), even when the immediate statement made by the revolt – I’ve put up with this for so long but no further – concerns a very specific personal event or history, rapidly comes to concern a general principle: you don’t have the right to do this to me, because (and therefore) people don’t have the right to do this to other people.  But, says Camus, you don’t have to be the victim of such an infraction of the acceptable to revolt against it; you can observe it and see that it is wrong, and therefore in revolting against it you declare it to be an example of a general wrong.
This is a version of a particular strand of thought about ethics that (as far as I know) goes back at least to Kant.  It is also a good example of how ethics lie, to a certain extent at least, outside reason (as has been argued by Raymond Geuss).  Put another way, what provokes a reaction to something as ‘wrong’ is not the application of reason, whether in terms of calculations of the greater public good, or the pondering of a code of do’s and don’ts, or the striving towards virtue.  All of these things might be deployed after the event to explain or justify but the moment of revolt comes before any of that; it precedes reason.  Insofar as I understand it, it is on this sort of basis that Levinas argued that the ‘other’ precedes the self; the calling to the support of another person precedes the consciousness of oneself as an agent or the calculation of any personal benefit or loss.  At least that would be how I would make sense of it.  In that ‘non-reasonable’ demand there is space for the calling of god, or an appeal to a basic human nature, if you are so inclined, but neither is necessary to the argument.
Simon Critchley (left: currently my favourite British philosopher) brings many of these strands (and others, including Lacanian thought) together in his book Infinitely Demanding (which I thoroughly recommend) around the relationship between the demand (to ‘do the right thing’) and the acceptance of that demand, the undertaking to bear that burden.
The point that the acceptance that an individual case of a wrong should be put right implies the acceptance of the fact that that ‘wrong’ should be ‘righted’ universally is what makes life ethically difficult. It is the ‘infinite demand’ of which Critchley speaks and how one deals with that burden is the problem.  Critchley says that the options have thus far tended to resolve themselves out into a number of, to him (and me), unacceptable positions: the adherence to a religious fundamentalism and the eternal wait for a divine solution, or its secular equivalent in the sort of nihilism summed up in the phrase ‘everything’s shit and it always has been so there’s no point doing anything’ (which phrase pretty much encompasses John Gray’s life’s work), and which might otherwise find outlet in the sort of nihilism manifested in Islamic extremism and suicide bombing.  So, the way to cope with the infinite demand of an ethics of political commitment is not to constantly flay yourself with a critical super-ego – which would rapidly become intolerable – but actually to find a friend in your super-ego by standing outside things and making use of humour (‘why the super-ego is your amigo’).  You’ll never manage to bear the infinite burden but you can encourage yourself to keep trying by laughing at the hopelessness of it. 
I hope that does not mangle the argument too severely but, whether or not it does, you can see why I like Critchley!  You can also, perhaps, see where the points of contact are with Camus.  There isn’t much laughter in such of Camus’ oeuvre as I have read, I admit, but his discussion of the philosophy of the absurd brings the two thinkers closer together, I think.  Camus’ view was that the only answer to the absurdity of existence was to keep living, as much as possible, and, since the acceptance of the individual fact that you (personally) were better off alive than dead meant that you accepted that (generally) everyone was better off alive than dead, murder in a political cause could never be acceptable.  The only way round that was if, by accepting that murder was wrong, the assassin expunged his guilt for his particular action, even though it was demanded by the wrongs and injustices of political circumstance, by going happily to the gallows (hence the English title, The Fastidious Assassins).  This brings Camus close to Critchley’s stance on political violence in Infinitely Demanding, which, between it and Camus’ work, sums up my own view.(1)  Another medievalist blogger has recently proclaimed (with reference to my own work, indeed) that ‘we are all anti-Kantians’: this is lazy thinking.  We aren’t, or at least we don’t have to be.
If you’ve stayed with me thus far, you might well be thinking ‘well that’s all very well but what has it to do with the practice of history?’  As I see it this line of thinking is very germane to the study of history in a number of ways that allow us to isolate the implicit ethical demands of the historical enterprise.  That in turn permits, I would argue, a means of identifying what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ history on ethical terms.
My argument turns on this.  What calls us to study history?  I think that most if not all historians would be hard pressed to explain their interest fundamentally in ‘reasonable’ terms – of the value of an historical education, to oneself or society.  It is why one can never convince anyone who isn’t fundamentally interested in history that they should be interested in it on those grounds alone (I tried this, in a way, at a party, recently, and was roundly and personally insulted as a result – probably I should laugh at this but at the moment I’m not doing well on that front!).  You can only bring someone in to history if you manage to provide something that ‘sparks’ them, too.  So, that – as I term it – ‘aesthetic’ moment, when an ‘interest’ is sparked, precedes reason.  What that ‘something’ is, I contend, like the ethical appeal in – say – helping an old lady up the stairs with her shopping, related fundamentally to an awareness of a shared humanity: an interest in other people (and that word ‘people’ is crucial).  Now it might, for all I know, be true that some historians study, say, hats because they are interested in hats and not in people but in a way that wouldn’t affect my argument, if only because it’d just be, as I see it, representative of fundamentally analogous psychological processes (even if ones perhaps less generally regarded as signifying rude mental health). But they'd be in a minority anyway.  If you accept that call or appeal to go and study history, I would argue that you accept the principle that all human beings, and their lives and experiences, are intrinsically interesting and thus worthy of study. 
Now, this is a difficult burden to bear because (as indeed I admitted myself at the start) not all history is of interest to all of us.  I, for example, could happily spend my life without hearing another word about the parliamentary history of Disraeli or Gladstone.  The point about accepting the call to be a historian, though, is that we have to accept that those bits of history that we don’t work on are essentially as valuable and important as the bits we do study; I have to admit that there is potentially just as much value in the study of Disraeli and Gladstone as there is in the transformation of western Europe between c.560 and c.650 and that, if I can’t see that, that’s my fault and, if I cannot find it interesting, that is my problem.  Turned the other way round, if you try and argue that these periods and places or themes of history are worthwhile and important but those aren’t then you are, by implication, saying that some people’s lives, thoughts and experiences are more important than others.  That, I think, contradicts the implications of the calling you chose to accept, and the burden you thereby accepted, by becoming a historian in the first place.  These attitudes may be ‘only human’ but then to err is human and these are errors.  The point about the unbearable burden of being a historian is precisely that: it’s unbearable.  No one said it was going to be easy!
If you try and argue that these periods and places or themes of history are worthwhile and important but those aren’t then you are also, by implication, placing yourself and your agendas in the determining role in deciding who is more important than whom.  You could, I suppose, say that since you chose to study the people you study (and not others) and that their experience (and not others’) called you to study them, the implication of that was that that pre-rational calling had no more general implication about other human beings.  That, perhaps, is the weak point in my line of argument – that the universal demand is implicit in the particular.  It certainly requires a slightly different response.  I think that such a response would have to be along the lines of good historical practice.  For one thing, in examining historical evidence, pretty much all schools of thought are in agreement that one allows the documents to speak for themselves, in the first instance at least; that, in good historical practice, one tries to account for all the evidence available and that one’s argument will be shaped according to the evidence rather than vice versa.  What this implies is that actually you do subordinate your interests, in the first instance, to what the inhabitants of the past want to tell you.  But then, of course, you scrutinise what they are telling you; there is nothing in the historical calling, after all, that demands that you to agree with the position taken or the attitudes manifested in your sources (the contrary would require all historians of the Nazis to be actual Nazis, all historians of Stalin to be actual Stalinists and all historians of the Visigoths to be – well – Visigoths, I suppose…).  What is more, one would expect the same standards of good history, regardless of the period, place or theme under study. In these expectations about good historical practice, I contend, the argument against a universal historical demand being implicit in the specific, ‘aesthetic’ moment is crucially undermined.  One accepts that one’s objects of study are due the same respect, but (also) only the same respect, as any other historian’s object of study.  Furthermore, one puts oneself second; you allow the documents (the past if you like) to speak first:  ‘After you!’  This admits of a certain inability to be in a position to judge a priori who is more important than whom.
Moreover, and (you will be glad to hear) finally, I think that the demands of good practice apply – because they too are universal rather than specific – to the historian herself.  One expects to be listened to with respect, but also scrutinised carefully.  You cannot expect to be accorded more rights by the people who read your words than you are prepared to accord to the people whose words you read.  All this means, too, that you must be prepared to be shown that you are wrong, where you are, and to moderate your opinions where necessary.  I have said this before.  The demands placed on the historian – and they are ethical demands – are difficult if not impossible to bear.  We all make mistakes - some honest mistakes, some not - and we have to submit ourselves to the same law.  But the burden of the historian and the penalties for our mistakes when it gets too heavy, are or ought to be made more bearable through standing outside ourselves and our studies with humour.
If you have got this far, thank you for bearing with me.  There are many other dimensions to this argument and especially about what the impossible demands on the historian are in terms of politics and ethics in modern life.  But I will leave this here for now.  There are doubtless millions of holes, inconsistencies and flaws in the argument above, but I am interested to hear responses because this is a subject, and a line of argument that matters a great deal to me.

1: There has been subsequent debate between Slavoj Zizek and Simon Critchley about the position taken by Critchley in Infinitely Demanding, with regard to political violence, but I've not really familiarised myself with it.  Suffice it to say for now, that I am much more on Critchley's (non-violent resistance) side than on that of Zizek and Badiou, which seems to me to be quite inhuman and actually a little ridiculous.


  1. This is all very interesting, not least for the clear explanation of Camus, something I've tried to do myself and failed (perhaps because of the state I usually find myself in when the urge to laud Camus comes on me). If I have a refinement, it might be here:

    Turned the other way round, if you try and argue that these periods and places or themes of history are worthwhile and important but those aren’t then you are, by implication, saying that some people’s lives, thoughts and experiences are more important than others. That, I think, contradicts the implications of the calling you chose to accept, and the burden you thereby accepted, by becoming a historian in the first place.

    I think this is true if you leave `worthwhile' as a binary, either on or off. To argue that anything humans have done is not worthy of interest does involve that kind of, well, refusal of the other I suppose. But if it's analogue, and something can be more or less worthwhile, I can see more justifications. Something might be more worthy of study than another thing because lots of people have already studied the other thing, for example, because it is well known or the first thing little known, because of the potential of the first thing to inform other enquiries or whatever. I'm uncomfortably aware that this starts to sound like grant-justification, but do you think those are not ethical positions?

  2. I don't think they can be *good* *historians* (as opposed to chroniclers or antiquarians). These are good questions but I can respond better, properly, via the follow-ups I hope I will get round to writing, rather than a long comment.
    Jon: I see your point, but I think that that *is* a grant-judging perspective. I have to say that the more I hear and read about it, the more I am cconvinced that current historians have run out of things to say about Hitler and the Third Reich - but that doesn't mean I don't think that its study is worthwhile or interesting. If you see what I mean...

  3. Hi Guy

    Surely this dilemma about justifying ones own personal sub-specialism is not unique to historians, but an intrinsic part of most professions? Are psychiatrists saying that mental illness is more important or worthwhile than, say, cancer? I don't think so. Rather, there are a whole host of presonal reasons why we choose (a) a profession or general area of study and then (b) a sub-specialism that probably have much more to do with the individual than the subjects themselves.

    The harder issue is convincing others that one's own personal area of study/specialism is worth investment - a reflection of society rather than the subject itself, surely? This agin is not a unique situation within history.

    Ultimately, I suppose, all study and research comes down to finding out something we didn't previously know (or confirming something we could not previously be sure of) AND demonstrating that this new knowledge is of "value" - for any given definition of "value".

    So perhaps the title should be "the unbearable justification of values?"

    I now return you to your regular programming...


  4. Thanks Guy, very interesting and provocative, and as someone who is hoping to bring together medieval history and political commitment I'm particularly pleased to see a serious attempt at elucidating the connective threads between the two. (Although, while I am no analytical empiricist, I fear I'm a little more circumspect about les deux Jacques! Camus always wonderful however.)

    I'll have to think about what you've written, and will enjoy doing so. Can you tell us what your course on 'Terror' will involve? - I'm very intrigued!

    Good comment from Steve...


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